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Satire & Vernacular in Huck Finn  

In terms of craft, nonstandard dialect and irony are two of the weapons in Twain’s arsenal which make Huck Finn such a singular work of art.  Even the characters in the world of Huck Finn whom one would expect to be educated, such as the doctor who appears in the end of the novel, still use that folksy vernacular which makes the novel so famous.

Jim, the runaway slave, uses a vernacular which might be controversial insofar as it (supposedly) turns him into a racist caricature. Yet as we shall see, Twain’s portrayal of Jim was based on Twain’s real life experience with slaves similarly situated to Jim. Sure, there are times in Huck Finn when we feel like Jim is the butt of a joke. But that puts him in good company. Twain uses satire to show the folly, stupidity, greed, and villainy of almost all of humanity. Jim and Huck come out looking relatively unblemished in terms of Twain’s characterization.

Dialect and Vernacular of Huck Finn

The dialect and speech of the characters in Huck Finn gives us a window into life in the Antebellum West (though Missouri is also referred to as the South).  All the snatches of conversation and miscellaneous characters whom Huck and Jim encounter along the Mississippi River give us a vivid look at this time and place which would otherwise be lost to history.  T.S. Eliot opines: 

“...the picture of social life on the Mississippi one hundred years ago is, I feel sure, accurate”  (268). 

Part of what provides this accurate picture of social life is hearing the music of the characters’ speech, from Huck all the way to the doctor who helps Tom Sawyer (he doesn’t speak grammatically either).   Twain established himself as a “master of vernacular storytelling,” and that included black dialect, as we shall discuss (Burnes et al. 99). It still strikes one as singular to read an entire novel in this style, with no character speaking eloquently, and only the keen intelligence of the author shining through beneath the surface of Huck’s narration.

It is a “portraiture” (DeVoto 264) of the South, and every level and strata of that society and time. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we hear “the casual drawl of the frontier” (Fadiman 266).  It is a continuing lark to read through the double negatives, bad grammar such as “I knowed it.”  The way Huck speaks is part of his charm, his ingenuous personality, and his status as an affable outcast. Huck reflects disappointedly about playing pirates with Tom Sawyer; Huck uses a double negative and other irregular grammar: 

“We hadn’t robbed nobody, we hadn’t killed any people, but only just pretended” (12). 

Jim’s dialect, meanwhile, is even more “nonstandard.” Some might find Jim’s speech a bit over the top.  Rather, it is authentic to that time, ethnic group and region.  He also uses double negatives and Twain uses apostrophes to indicate dropped syllables:

“Nuffin’ never come of it.  I couldn’ manage to k’lect dat money no way.”   

Is Jim’s speech to an offensive caricature?  Maybe it has a touch of caricature; yet nevertheless, it feels authentic and helps establish a vivid picture of him as a character: not well-spoken, but good hearted, and ultimately a kind person.  

Also, we can’t forget that Twain was raised in the presence of slaves, so he would know their speech patterns.  His uncle, who lived thirty miles north in Missouri, had 30 slaves.  As a boy, Twain was along side them in: 

“...the fields where they worked and sang by day, the shacks where they cooked and talked by night” (Powers 30).  

To our ears, Jim’s speech may seem like a racist portrayal.  But that is only because we’ve been conditioned to “police” such a portrayal.  Rather, we need to simply open our minds to Twain’s depiction of a world which he knew first-hand. 

A Biting Satire 

Twain’s prose is famously dripping with irony.  Even in his personal letters and conversation, we see that Twain is the master of this literary device.  

Twain uses satire to show the folly of his fellow man, sometimes the stupidity of his fellow man, and sometimes our laughably contradictory thought processes.  Like the Shepardsons and Grangerfords, stand-ins for the Hatfields and McCoys, Twain’s characters persist on their paths despite the destruction wrought.  Whether it’s Tom and Huck discussing people to kill for their imaginative pirate club, or Buck Grangerford describing the deadly feud with the Shepardsons matter-of-factly, they never stop to question the insanity and inanity of it.  Twain invites us to see humans as lovable but also foolish; good-hearted (usually) but also nonsensical. 

One might even say that Twain holds a rather dim view of humanity.  You can get pretty far in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without finding any characters with redeeming qualities (aside from he main characters Huck and Jim, who are decent enough).  The most respectable family we encounter in the book, the Grangerfords, are engaged in a senseless feud, and despite its ruinous nature, it never occurs to them to stop it.  Other characters, such as the King and the Duke, are just downright liars and frauds.  It makes one think of the famous Twain quote: 

“Man is the only animal that blushes--or needs to.”

When Huck considers the scams that the King and Duke are running in town after town, he laments: “It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race” (136).  

Twain’s sense of irony is effortless and relentless.  Describing the King and Duke, he writes: 

“First they done a lecture on temperance, but they didn’t make enough to get drunk on” (175).   

Huck is a passive observer of the foolishness and the vileness of those around him, and we see their folly and vice through his eyes.  His ability to view other characters objectively and without judgment make him the perfect narrator through which the reader can interpret events himself. 

Twain used his perfectly pitched sense of irony outside of his fiction as well. It seems almost every statement he made had a twist at the end, a jab usually directed towards humanity itself. Describing the missionaries in Hawaii, where he was stationed for a time as a journalist, he noted:

"The missionaries have Christianized and educated all the natives.  All this ameliorating cultivation has at last built up in the native women a profound respect for chastity--in other people."  (Burns 52) 

Here Twain delivers a jab at one of his favorite targets–hypocrisy.

A Note of Melancholy

Yet the voice of Huck can become abruptly morbid; enough so that it makes one wonder what type of simmering depression emanated from the mind of Twain himself: 

“...there was them kind of faint dronings of bugs and flies in the air that makes it seem so lonesome a nd like everybody’s dead and gone; and if a breeze fans along and quivers the leaves, it makes you feel mournful, because you feel like it’s spirits whispering–spirits that’s been dead ever so many years–and you always think they’re talking about you.  As a general thing it makes a body which he was dead, too, and done with it all.” (182)

It isn’t that Mark Twain was “depressed,” but it is true that the man knew and understood melancholy. As a young man, after moving West, he found himself unsuccessful and broke:

"He was jailed for being drunk in public, put a revolver to his head, and almost pulled the trigger.  "Many times I have been sorry I did not succeed," he wrote years later, "but I was never ashamed of having tried."" (Burns 48). 

Anyway, wasn’t it Twain who said that humor comes from a place of sadness? “The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in heaven,” Twain opined. Then we should not be surprised that Twain’s literary skills range from satire and comedy to the most profound emotions and even sadness.

Huck and his Father 

While Huck has been taken in by Miss Watson and Widow Douglass, he is otherwise quite alone in the world, with no mother, and a father who beats and despises him.  It is a wonder then that Huck still has his optimism intact. His alcoholic and abusive father and lack of civilized habits puts Huck on the outskirts of society.  With such a low bar of human decency, it was inevitable that Huck would form a bond with Jim, as a runaway slave; and Huck a castaway from polite White society. 

Huck’s father is even offended that Huck should have the audacity to learn to read and write: 

“I’ll learn people to bring up a boy to put on airs over his own father and let on to be better’n what he is” (18). 

Basically kidnapped by his father, Huck is taken to a cabin, described as a “shanty” with a dirt floor.  It is located thick in the woods where it would unlikely be found by others.  Huck actually grows to enjoy this life away from civilization; that is, apart from the “cowhiding” which he regularly receives from his father.  The physical abuse is such that Huck feels he must abscond and contrives a plan to do so.  Meanwhile, through characterization of Huck’s father, we learn that he is even more despicable.  What really irritates Huck’s father is the sight of a black man who appears to be better situated than he is.  He relates an experience to Huck:  

“Why looky here.  There was a free n*gger from Ohio there; a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain’t a man in town that’s got as fine a clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane…And what d’you think? they said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages and knowed everything.” (24)

As a down-scale white, Huck’s father is chagrined at a black man who is upwardly mobile.  Rather than improve his own situation, he scorns his (perceived) racial inferior.  

Huck’s father and his guardian are like an angel and devil in his consciousness.  “Pap” says it’s okay to borrow if “you was meaning to pay them back.”  Meanwhile, the “widow” says this is just “a soft name for stealing” (56).  On one hand is his father, a man with utterly no scruples, and then the widow, with a rigid sense of right and wrong.  Which model will Huck follow? 

The Escape 

Soon Huck finds the canoe on the river, both of which would enter the American literary imagination.  Twain himself learned the Mississippi river like a “great text” in his time as a steamboat pilot in the 1850s (Powers 31).  The river itself could be a metaphor for Twain’s writing, what with its tributaries (digressions) and it’s crooked trajectory and “improvisational flow” (Powers 31).  Hence the Mississippi River held great meaning both for Twain the author and as a metaphor in Huck Finn

Huck fakes his own death and escapes from imprisonment in the shack with his father to freedom.  Huck observes a search party looking for him the next day which includes Tom Sawyer, his father, Judge Thatcher, and Aunt Polly.  Based on conversations he overhears, he learns that the search party has presumed him dead (as per his plan), and is really just looking for his corpse.  It doesn’t seem to bother Huck that he causes such distress in the people that care for him.  

He encounters Jim on the island where they are both hiding. Huck’s first evolution on the subject of race is perhaps when he agrees not to give Jim up.  Though he is shocked that Jim has run away from Miss Watson, and it may make him an “Ablitionist,” Huck agrees not to give Jim up.  After all, Huck is not in a much better position, as he is presumed dead by everyone he knows. In that sense, they are both like non-persons, not where they are supposed to be.  This status as outlaws actually affords them a liberating experience in their travels and experiences. 

To Be Continued

In the next installment, we examine the evolving friendship between Huck and Jim. Furthermore, we analyze the struggle between what I term Huck’s superego and his conscience in regards to the institution of slavery.

Works Cited 

Burns, Ken, et. al. Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. 

DeVoto, Bernard. “The Artist as American.” Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. NY: Random House, 2001.

Eliot, T.S. “From Introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. NY: Random House, 2001.

Fadiman, Clifton.  “From Introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. NY: Random House, 2001.

Marx, Leo. “From Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn.” Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. NY: Random House, 2001.

Powers, Ron. “Hannibal’s Sam Clemens.”  Burns, Ken, et. al. Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Saunders, George. “Introduction.” Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. NY: Random House, 2001.

Sergeant, Thomas Perry. “From a Review in Century.” Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. NY: Random House, 2001.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. NY: Random House, 2001.

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